In a recent article published in the Journal of Global Health, Jared Jones argues that anthropology has been misused as a tool to "other" people in Ebola-stricken regions. Jones suggests that rather than participating in the characterization of West Africans as "backwards" or "primitive", anthropologists should highlight structural inequalities that facilitate disease transmission, like poverty and poor health systems.
There's a lot I like about the piece, and if nothing else Jones and I share an appreciation for the work of Paul Farmer. I agree, as I suspect would most public health professionals, that poor public health infrastructure is a primary amplifier of outbreaks. Underdeveloped health systems delays outbreak detection, hampers the speed and power of the response, and generally makes achieving control more difficult. I also agree that portraying West African people as ignorant and illogical is nonsense. Historically, even communities without access to or knowledge of what we think of as biomedicine often have sophisticated conceptualizations of infection control.
Where I don't agree with Jones is the assertion that anthropologists should not engage in applied work like "designing education campaigns, explaining the actions of international health teams to locals, and designing “culturally sensitive” intervention strategies." I think this is one of the most powerful tools of anthropology in the midst of an outbreak, and it should not be downplayed in favor of narrating or contextualizing. There's plenty of time for that after an outbreak is over - unlimited time, in fact. In the middle of a crisis, what's needed is action.
As I wrote in a previous post, I believe practitioners (of both anthropology and public health) have an obligation to stand with the communities they serve. Bearing witness is necessary but not sufficient.
By eschewing involvement with the actual outbreak response, anthropologists are missing a huge opportunity to improve public health. Ultimately epidemiology and anthropology (anthrodemiology?) have a lot in common; if they were to work together, so much more could be achieved.
Previous posts on anthropology + epidemiology:
Ebola and poverty
Policy misconduct and the role of advocacy in public health
The public health paradox: Why people don't get flu shots
"Send me your data - PDF is fine," said no one ever
The public health paradox ("When public health works, it's invisible")
Let's make data a civic right
Scholarly impact of open access journals
Six months later, disease detectives still battling fungal meningitis outbreak